For the countless times India’s home invincibility – 30 wins and three losses before this series in the last 10 years – has been drummed up, rarely has it grasped the extent of what it actually took to accomplish this spectacular ascendancy.
Each of those three losses came when the tour was alive – the first Test against Australia in Pune in 2017, the series opener against England in Chennai in 2021 and Australia again, in the third Test of the 2023 tour. And every time India won the series. Will this tour of England rewrite history? Only if India implode inexplicably, both with bat and ball. And that’s something that hasn’t happened since 2012, the last time India have lost two home Tests in a row.
In the aftermath of Joe Root sweeping his way to a double hundred in the first Test of 2021, India did what they do best in the next Test, scoring runs and taking wickets on a raging turner. If the tone was set by a scintillating hundred from Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin applied finishing touches to that demolition with eight wickets as well as a second innings hundred as India consigned England to a 317-run thrashing.
2016 is a good example too, when India landed in Visakhapatnam after drawing the first Test in Rajkot. Once Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli scored hundreds to lift India to 455, the game was more or less done and dusted.
Problem is, India don’t have Kohli and Pujara. Nor KL Rahul and Ravindra Jadeja. In fact, this is the first time since 2011 that India are to play a Test without Kohli or Jadeja. Never before has an India middle-order looked so out of depth.
“Their experience definitely counts,” said KS Bharat on Thursday. “But you look at youngsters like us, we have played a lot of domestic cricket and we have played a lot of (international) cricket. It’s unfortunate of them to miss, but then our bench strength is always ready for a challenge on these kinds of tracks.”
Recent numbers don’t exude similar confidence though. Shubman Gill averages 21 at No 3. Shreyas Iyer – stop gap No 4 but experienced nonetheless in Indian conditions – averages 14.55 since December 2022, when he had scored 87 at Mirpur. Pressure of fourth-innings batting in India is something most of this batting line-up is not acquainted with.
And it showed in the meltdown in Hyderabad. Handing a debut to Rajat Patidar or Sarfaraz Khan, or perhaps both if India really want to tread safely, is still a solution on paper that needs to work out in real time. Patidar was always going to be a part of India’s plan. Khan was nowhere in the scene and yet here he is, pulled out of the fringes to perceivably perform a miracle if picked.
There is talk of belief, of not panicking, of India knowingly exactly what it would take to break this tide and slowly regain ground. And since they weren’t far from a win in Hyderabad, there is hope they should now be an even better judge of a critical situation.
“After the (Hyderabad) game, the atmosphere was absolutely relaxed,” said Bharat. “The instruction is very clear – it’s a long Test series and we have played a lot of series like this in the past. And we as individuals have to focus on the good things and things which we want to do well and do in the coming Test games. That’s the message from captain and coach.”
As positive as the message might feel, England seemed to make the right noise on Thursday by announcing their eleven before Ben Stokes arrived at the press conference to break down the decision of picking James Anderson over Mark Wood and handing a debut to off-spinner Shoaib Bashir. And also shed some light on the pitch since Bharat, the local boy, couldn’t.
“It might be a good wicket for maybe a day or two. But out here in India and other parts of the subcontinent, you tend to see it start to spin more and more as the Test goes deeper and deeper. Even though it does look like there’s a little bit more moisture in there, with the heat – and today is very hot again – any footholes and stuff like that might come into play the further the Test goes.”
This is just a small example of the degree of clarity of thought and approach India are up against, not only a team, or a band of extravagant batters, or some bowlers who weren’t even born when Anderson made his Test debut. Kohli’s unavailability, a fourth innings collapse and injuries to Rahul and Jadeja have pushed India into a corner. But to restore the balance, Rohit and Co have to find that gear that they have rarely needed.